Anti-Semitism and Poland’s Two Faces

What a dedicated, nationwide educational campaign may possibly cure.

The recent flare-up in Israeli-Polish relations over statements made by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and interim Foreign Minister Israel Katz, charging Poles of collaborating with the German Nazis in the murder of 3 million Polish Jews, has temporarily soured the solid relationship between the two governments. Netanyahu was misquoted, about Poles (not all) collaborating in the murder of Jews has been reconciled and smoothed out by the two governments. Katz’s statement, that Poles “suckle anti-Semitism with their mother’s milk,” although partially correct, should not have been leveled at this time, when Israel needs all the friends it can get in the European Union (EU). The charge doesn’t apply to all Poles

I interviewed Professor Jan Karski in the early 1990’s.  Karski, a proud Catholic Pole, most certainly deserved the title of hero – not collaborator. During WWII, Jan Karski, served as a courier for the Polish underground (Home Army or Armia Krajowa in Polish), connecting the Home Army and the Polish Government-in-exile in London. In October, 1942, at the height of the destruction of Polish Jewry, Karski was ordered to clandestinely go to the West and deliver a report on the situation in occupied Poland to the Polish Government-in-exile. Before departing for London and later Washington DC, Karski met with Jewish leaders of the underground. They asked him to inform the world’s statesmen on the desperate plight of Polish Jewry. Touched by the appeals of the Polish Jewish leaders, Karski decided to see things for himself, and enter his impressions into the report. With great risks to his life, he was smuggled into the Warsaw Ghetto, where he witnessed emaciated and dying children in the streets. He was, as far as we know, the only person to enter the Belzec Death Camp in Southern Poland, and report on what he saw. He did the same in the Majdanek Death Camp in the Lublin area. The horrors he witnessed marked him deeply, and propelled him into becoming not only a messenger of the Polish underground, but a voice for the suffering and dying Jews of Poland.

Karski had an audience with Churchill and FDR, and he described to this reporter the passivity of FDR in hearing of the horrors the Jews of Poland were enduring. “He (FDR) had his cigar in his mouth, and barely listened, and remarked to Karski that he (Karski) was “exaggerating the situation.” Churchill, Karski told me, “was more attentive,” but he too, did not offer any action to relieve the situation.

After the War, Karski served as a professor at Georgetown University in Washington DC. He devoted his life to perpetuating the memory of the Holocaust victims. He identified whole-heartedly with the tragedy, and was unable to come to terms with the world’s silence at the suffering of the Jewish people, and the slaughter of Six Million Jews. In 1981, speaking at a meeting of U.S. military officers who had liberated the concentration camps, he stated that he had failed to fulfill his wartime mission. “And thus I myself became a Jew. And just as my wife’s family was wiped out in the ghettos of Poland, in its concentration camps, and crematoria, so have all the Jews who were slaughtered became my family. But I am a Christian Jew…I am a practicing Catholic…my faith tells me the original sin has been committed by humanity. This will haunt humanity to the end of time. And I want it to be so.”   

Professor Karski was honored by Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust Memorial and Museum in Jerusalem as a “Righteous Among the Nations.” In 1994, he was awarded honorary citizenship of Israel. In response, Karski said: “This is the proudest and most meaningful day in my life.  Through the honorary citizenship of the State of Israel, I have reached the spiritual source of my Christian faith. I also became part of the Jewish community…And now, I, Jan Karski, by birth Jan Kozielewski - a Pole, an American, a Catholic - have also become an Israeli.”

Clearly, Karski represents another sort of Pole, a Philo-Semite whose humanity drove him to risk his life to save Jews. Pope John Paul II (the Polish Pope) is another example Philo-Semitism. He was born Karol Wojtyla in 1920. During WWII, he rescued a starving 13-year old Jewish girl. Later, as Bishop, he partook in the Second Vatican Council and the issuance of Nostra Aetate in 1965, which cleared Jews of complicity in the death of Jesus. It also renounced the traditional Christian claim that Jews have been rejected by G-d. The Second Vatican Council condemned anti-Semitism and called for “mutual understanding and respect” between Christians and Jews. Pope John Paul II turned those words into actions.     

As pope, John Paul II devoted his energies to improving Catholic-Jewish relations. He had his childhood Jewish friends from his hometown of Wadowice, and regularly met with Jewish leaders. He repeatedly condemned anti-Semitism, commemorated the Holocaust, and established diplomatic relations between the Vatican and Israel. During his visit to Poland in 1979, he knelt at the Auschwitz death camp, where he prayed among others for the Jewish victims. In 1986, he visited Rome’s great synagogue, warmly embracing Rome’s Chief Rabbi Elio Toaff, and described Jews as the “elder brothers” of Christians.

On his visit to Israel in 2000, Pope John Paul II publicly apologized for the persecution of Jews by Catholics over the centuries, including the Holocaust. He deposited a note in the Western Wall, pleading forgiveness. Pope John Paul can be credited with changing the anti-Semitic nature of the Polish Catholic Church.

On my numerous trips to Poland, I discovered both sides of Poland, the anti-Semitic legacy that still pervades among many Poles, yet I fondly remember the medical student in Warsaw, who intimated to me (knowing only that I am an American) that “Poland is poorer today, because we no longer have the Jews. The Jews gave us culture…” There is also the Poland of young people who look for “mezuzahs” left behind from before the Holocaust in small towns like my parents home town of Ulanow, aiming to learn about Jewish life in Poland before the War. The Krakow Jewish Festival, where many Poles flock to eager to celebrate Jewish culture, is another indicator of positive change in Poland. In Kielce, I encountered a Polish student who organized a memorial for the 42 Jewish survivors of the Holocaust murdered there on July 4, 1946.

Jews and Poles share the sad history of being squeezed between powerful empires that demolished their sovereignty. In 1772, Tsarist Russia, the Habsburg Empire, and Prussia divided Poland. Poland was not reconstituted as an independent state until after WWI (and divided again between Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939). Ancient Israel was often invaded and became a vassal of the Egyptian Empires to the south or the Mesopotamian Empires in the north. They, along with the Persians and Greeks also subjugated Israel. The Romans however, ended Jewish sovereignty in the land of Israel for 2000 years. The Jews, unlike the Poles, were uprooted and exiled (by the Romans) from their homeland. Today however, both Israel and Poland are independent democracies, but still share their historical fears of hostile neighbors, whether it is Iran for Israel, or Russia for Poland. 

To validate the efforts made by Jan Karski and Pope John Paul II, Poland must fully address, and eradicate its latent anti-Semitism by a dedicated, nationwide educational campaign. On Its part, Israel should partner with Warsaw to achieve that goal.



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